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2019 Commencement Speech: David Brooks, New York Times best-selling author and political commentator

A recording of the commencement speech can be found online.

First, congratulations to the Marquette University class of 2019.

You have made it to graduation day, this is really happening.

You know this is real, because you are hung over, your parents are proud and your professors are shocked.

I have to say it is very cool to be here with you, it is cool to be in the building where the Milwaukee Bucks play.

I feel their aura here, I feel surrounded by men who are bigger, stronger and much greater than myself; and now I know how the Toronto Raptors feel.

Since you have gotten into Marquette, you have mastered skills. You have learned how to dominate classroom discussions while doing none of the reading.

In lecture halls, you've mastered another skill. Right now it looks like you are starring at me with rapt attention but in fact you are completely asleep.

Over the past four years at Marquette you've worked hard, made dozens of friends and done your laundry at least six times.

I salute your community service. You've spent one spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.

I salute your cultural sophistication. You tell your friends you like Kendrick Lamar, but secretly you like Taylor Swift before she got angry.

Now on this big day, your life takes an exciting turn. There are two paths ahead of you, one leads to a soul crushing job as a cog in a corporate machine. The other leads to permanent residence in your parents basement.

I'm here to help you navigate these exciting opportunities.

I'm here to remind you, you shouldn't spend time worrying about the financial stuff, your parents will be happy to pay your rent for another ten or twenty years.

I also remind you that you are in a beautiful spot in your lives. More mature than the freshmen, sexier than the faculty; a lot sexier than the Marquette faculty as a matter of fact.

You may not have been to other college commencements before so you may not know the etiquette. After you get your degree, its customary to give President Lovell a little tip, ten or twenty bucks to show him he did a good job.

It is also customary to give your commencement speaker a little tip, six or seven hundred dollars, five thousand for ECON majors.

Now this may be your first college commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula.

The college asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we are supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice.

Listen to your inner voice; be true to yourself; follow your passion; your future is limitless; take risks.

First my generation gives you a mountain of debt, then we give you career derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.

So much generational hostility here.

I'm here to tell you the truth.

Don't follow your passion; follow the passion of the person sitting next to you, it is probably better.

I especially like all the commencement speeches telling you how important it is to fail.

These started a few years ago with Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling and from these addresses we learned that failure is great if you happen to be Steve Jobs or J.K. Rowling.

For most people failure stinks, don't fail; that is my advice.

Now commencement speeches are the way our culture hands down its values, so I read a lot of these things and what strikes me about most of them is that they are big boxes of nothing.

You are at the point in your lives where you are asking the big questions: What do I want from my life? What is the highest and most valuable kind of life? And we hand you this empty box of freedom. Be free! Your future is limit less. Take risks. Dream big.

You are trying to decide should I pursue this life or that life and these cliches don't help you at all. They don't tell you what kind of life is the life most worth wanting.

Then we hand you the big, empty box of self.

Look inside yourself. You do you. Live according to your own true way. You are amazing all by yourself. These cliches don't help either.

The you is the thing you have to form.

Plus you are not trying to devote yourself to yourself. You are trying to find some cause that will give you meaning outside yourself.

You are looking for a cause you'd be willing to live and die for. All we do is give you empty boxes.

Which reveals something about our culture.

We are filled with advice about how to become a CEO or a doctor or an engineer, but the most important questions of life, the large parts of American society have nothing to say.

So for the next few minutes I'm going to try to describe the kind of life I think is best. At least it will be something.

I haven't lived up to my ideals. I have failed my ideals all the time, but I do believe in these ideals. And the word I'd like to build my speech around is the word commitment.

Over the next 15 years most of you will make four big commitments: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a community and to a philosophy or faith.

The fulfillment of your entire lives will be determined by how wisely you chose your commitment and how well you execute upon them.

What is a commitment?

A commitment is a promise made out of love.

First you fall in love with something, maybe a field of research, maybe a town, a political cause, a woman, your God, your future children. And after falling in love with this thing, you want to make promises to it.

A commitment is a promise made without expecting a return.

You may get benefits from the love from your spouse, from your child, but that isn't why you made the commitment.

If you are lucky, you will make the kind of commitment that Ruth made to Naomi in the Bible. Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.

That is a total commitment.

Your commitments will give you your identity. In 20 years you'll introduce yourself according to your greatest commitment. I'm a Marine. I'm a Catholic. I'm a teacher. I'm a mom. I'm a dad.

When you start serving your commitment it gets inside of you and changes who you are.

I knew a woman who grew up in a small town called Wilkesboro North Carolina. She couldn't wait to get out of there. For college she went away to the West Coast, but something drew her back to home, as things tend to draw us back to home.

Now she spends her life creating meeting places for lonely people in Wilkesboro. I belong to Wilkesboro she says. This town owns me. She serves her town, for her, the big decisions in life are easy. She knows what she is committed to. She knows where her ultimate allegiance lies. She knows what to do. She has reached the point of the double negative: I can't not do this, this is who I am.

Your commitment also builds your character.

When my oldest son was born, he came out bruised and blue with a super low Apgar score. They rushed him off to the intensive care ward and that night we didn't know what was going to happen.

A question passed through my head. If he only lives for thirty minutes, would that be worth a life time of grief for his mother and I.

Before having a child, I would have said no. How could thirty minutes of life, not even aware of itself be worth a life time of grief for two other people. But after our kids are born, we parents, those up in the stands, become aware of a layer of love and commitment that we never could have imagined before hand. It happened to them, roughly twenty-one years ago and after that you realized that the life of your child, even for thirty minutes, has infinite value and dignity, so of course it is worth it.

When you discover this level of commitment, you want to do things for your baby. You want to wake up early for baby. You'd rather play tennis, but you care for your baby. You become slight less selfish and self absorbed than you were and slowly your position becomes a little more giving. Your character a little finer.

Our character is formed with the things we love, the things we promise to serve as we try to live up to the promises we make to those things.

Now making these four commitments is essential to the next decade and a half of your life. It may even be a good idea to keep four separate journals. Each one dedicated to how you are doing in one of the four big commitments. To a family, a vocation, a creed and a community.

Don't let these questions drift.

The people who I know that are the most unhappiest just let their life drift from one day to the other.

Now how do you chose your commitments. How do you chose what work to go into. Who to marry. Where to live.

Over the centuries some wise people have left us some tips.

For example, when choosing a career be lead by above all two things: your sense of beauty and the presence of rage.

Choosing a career is weirdly ascetic. When the scientist EO Wilson was seven he took his first trip to the beach. He saw creatures outside of his previous imagination like jelly fish. One day he was sitting on a dock with his feet in the water when a sting ray glided beneath him. He was thunder struck.

He calculated that children see animals at twice the size as adults, and at that moment a naturalist was born. He loved the ocean and he loved animals. It was that sheer sense of beauty. He has spent the next eighty odd years studying nature.

Beauty calls to us in this way. When my daughter was five, she walked into a hockey rink and to this day she teaches hockey to young adults in California.

When I was seven, I read a book called Paddington the Bear and decided I wanted to become a writer. I've written every day in the fifty years since except for maybe two hundred.

Einstein was given a compass when he was five, he was amazed at the invisible forces controlling the needle and he spent the rest of his life investigating the hidden forces of the universe.

A painter was once asked why she became a painter. She replied, I love the smell of paint. It is just that natural beauty.

One bit of advice from Nietzsche is write down the four most beautiful moments in your life, then see if you can draw a thematic line through them. If you can do that, you will have found the law of your very nature.

Other people find their vocation in a fit of rage.

Just over one hundred years ago, Francis Perkins was in New York City having tea when she heard a commotion. She ran outside and saw a building on fire. She had stumbled upon one of the worst fires in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. She watched over one hundred seamstresses burn to their deaths. Fifty seven of them leapt to their deaths from the eleventh floor building to die quickly on the pavement rather than to burn to death.

It was her moment of obligation.

She spent the next sixty years of her life fighting for worker rights.

People don't generally find their vocation by asking what do I want from life. They find it by asking what is life asking of me.

What problems are around me. What problems am I uniquely in a position to address. What injustices make me so angry that it can fuel me through life.

Now choosing who to marry may seem a more romantic choice than choosing a career, but it is actually less.

Now I know most of you are not thinking about marriage yet. One of my students said marriage is a box that will come when I'm thirty five. I don't need to think about it right now.

But this is the most important decision in your life and you should start thinking about it.

I always tell college presidents that every course in the college should be about how to chose a marriage partner. The sociology of marriage, the psychology of marriage, the neuroscience of marriage. Nobody listens to me.

When choosing to marry a person, the first thing to evaluate is the quality of your communications.

Marriage is a decades long conversation. You have to be able to talk to each other for the rest of your lives.

When choosing who to marry, it is best to apply three lenses. First the psychological lens, what personality traits does your potential spouse have. The research is clear on who to get into a relationship with. Go with kindness, avoid neuroticism.

Kindness does not seem like a very sexy or exciting trait, but kind people make the best relationship partners.

Neurotic people seem really exciting, but the drama and self sabotage will never end.

Then there is the emotional lens. There has to be a lot of passion between you to fuse you together so you can withstand the difficulties that any relationship involves. You should be thinking about him all the time, you should see her face in every crowd, you should feel a burning pain in your stomach when you go away from him.

There has to be a lot of love, but there also has to be the right kind of love.

The Greeks distinguished between three kinds: Philos which is friendship, Eros which is desire and Agape which is self less love.

If all you have is Philos, then you have a friendship, but not a real relationship.

If all you have is Eros and Philos, then you have a romantic fling, but not a marriage.

You have to have all three.

Finally, there is the moral lens.

Love will fade. Love will have its ups and downs, but admiration won't fade.

Do you admire this person. Does she keep her promises? Does he use good judgement? Does she refuse to cut moral corners? A relationship can survive many things, it cannot survive disrespect.

After you have made a commitment, how do you execute it well.

Again the wise persons throughout the centuries have left us clues.

The first is make your commitments maximal commitments.

Every commitment like going to med school or joining the military has a testing period, a boot camp. The only way to get through it is with an attitude of total abandonment, go all in and burn all the bridges behind you.

This is even true with marriage.

Before you are married, or living with someone you can live with the illusion that you are easy to live with. Afterwards you realized your not, you are being watched and you begin watching yourself.

As my friend Tim Keller notes, if you are two years into a relationship and suddenly you discover the person you thought was so completely perfect is actually kind of selfish. And as you are making this discovery about her, she is making it about you.

You have a choice. You can have half a marriage and never deal with the selfish parts of your marriage or you can throw yourself at each other with blind abandon.

You can each decide to see your own selfishness as the key problem here. Your own selfishness is the only selfishness you can really control.

If two people spend their days trying to deal with their own selfishness, you have the making of a good relationship.

But good intentions are not enough.

You have to know the life hacks.

For example, couples are often told never to go to bed mad. But sometime if you are fighting with your partner, you just need to go to bed. Wake up, make waffles, you'll feel better in the morning.

Somewhere online I read you should boast about your friends and your partners and have them overhear you boasting. If in marriage you have the urge to bitch about your spouse, bitch to his mother and not yours. His mother will forgive him, yours never will.

And this is the crucial point. A commitment is driven by love, but it has to be executed with skill.

My favorite definition of commitment is falling in love with something, then building a structure around it for those moments when love falters.

Jews love their God, but keep Kosher just in case.

Religions are filled with rituals, spiritual disciplines because people need structures to serve as daily guides to keep them on their commitments.

Now I'm a writer so I'm fascinated by the way writers structure their commitment to their vocation. Maya Angelou would wake up at five thirty every morning. At six thirty she would go off to a modest hotel room she kept. Inside the room there were four things: a bed, a desk, a dictionary, a deck of cards a Bible and a bottle of Sherry. She would arrive at seven and leave at twelve thirty sharp.

The short story master John Cheever would get up, put on his only suit, ride the elevator to the basement of his building where he had an office. He would then take off the suit, write in his boxers until twelve thirty and then put back on the suit and ride the elevator upstairs to make himself lunch.

Ritual and routine.

I've tried to use this commencement address to make a subtle critique of our culture. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on individual freedom, but too much individual freedom tears at the bonds between people.

Too much individual freedom makes us lonely and unattached. Too much freedom leads to a scattered afraid to commit life.

I've used this talk to ask you to reject the individualism of our culture and embrace a life built around commitment and attachment.

Make big promises and execute them in small ways and you'll be more joyous.

One of the great things about Marquette University is that it hosts the papers of one of my great heroes, a woman named Dorothy Day. When Dorothy Day was a young woman she realized all the accounts of child birth she ever read were written by guys. So she decided to write one and she wrote one forty minutes after the birth of her daughter at the beginning of a great commitment.

If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony or carved the most exquisite figure she wrote, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child, with this came the need to worship and to adore.

A commitment seized her, a commitment to her child, but also a commitment to God. She became a Catholic and on that day spent the next sixty years of her life not only serving the poor, but living in poverty with the poor. It was a complete and ferocious commitment.

At the end of her life she was asked by a guy named Robert Coles if she would write her memoir and she said, you know I once tried. I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote on top A Life Remembered and then I sat there and I thought of the Lord and his visit to us those many centuries ago and I was just grateful to have had him on my mind all that time.

She had reached a place after sixty years of commitment, of total serenity and complete peace and joy.

Marquette class of 2019 congratulations.

I just ask that you tie yourself down to something you love. The chains you chose will set you free.

Thank you.

commencement/2019.txt · Last modified: 2020/12/07 16:49 (external edit)